- Something Old: Twentieth-Century Warfare Is Not Disappearing Soon
The war in Ukraine has reinforced the age-old lesson that geography is one of the most important variables in warfare. Any battle plan that Ukraine’s or Russia’s commanders might draw up remains subject to the dictates of space and terrain. As they have over the centuries, mountains, rivers, rain, mud, and snow continue to set humanity’s boundaries in fighting wars.
The fourth-century Roman military historian Flavius Vegetius Renatus described river crossing as one of the most dangerous tasks an army can undertake, since it exposes soldiers to an adversary’s ambushes. Today the Ukrainian military faces that same obstacle in its efforts to expand a small bridgehead on the Russian-controlled bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Recently, in a hard-fought effort, the Ukrainian military pushed into the small town of Kozachi Laheri on the left bank of the river. This secured its position only a few hundred meters deeper into the occupied territory of Ukraine, making an en masse river crossing more feasible.
The centuries-old practices of trench warfare provide another example of history reasserting itself on the battlefields of Ukraine. Apart from artillery salvos, the conflict in Ukraine has revolved predominantly around infantry units’ skirmishes along the trenches, with line infantry units doing the fighting while engineering units artfully construct and maintain kilometers-long fortified positions. The current state of play in Ukraine—a high-tempo conflict paradoxically married to a static battlefield geometry—owes its existence to Russian engineering formations that have outclassed the rest of the Russian military.
Finally, as it was in the days of Napoleon Bonaparte, artillery remains the king of warfare, and will likely remain so for decades to come. There have been instances in this conflict when Russia fired more than 20,000 shells in a day while Ukraine fired only 6,000. Yet artillery capabilities differ drastically from those of Napoleon’s armies. With increased mobility, counter-battery radars, precision shells, and spotter drones, contemporary artillery operations are more complex than ever.
- Something New: Emerging Technologies Meet Innovative Concepts of Operations
As age-old laws of warfare dictate battlefield dynamics, emerging technologies are sparking a groundbreaking change in how those battles are fought. The trenches are there to stay, but drones monitor them around the clock. Crossing rivers is still a herculean task, but precision strike weapons can make it more manageable by pounding the hostile bank of a river from many kilometers away. The integration of drones and command–control networks has ushered in a new era of information supremacy.
The most pronounced battlefield change wrought by this new information age has been the empowering of infantry on the ground. If the first infantry revolution of the fourteenth century occurred when knights began to dismount before battle, the twenty-first century may be witnessing a second infantry revolution in the making. Anti-tank weapons with top-attack capability, such as the Javelin and NLAW, have equipped infantry units with an asymmetric advantage against heavy armor, especially in urban and suburban settings. Likewise, MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) have turned ground-based air defense crews into mobile and dangerous units. Even advanced combat aircraft such as the Russian S-30SM, forced to fly at lower altitudes due to a lack of adequate precision-guided munitions, have fallen prey to Ukrainian MANPADS.
Apart from HALE (high-altitude and long-endurance) and MALE (medium-altitude and long-endurance) drones, mini drones and first-person view kamikaze drones are also reshaping the battlefield. Quadcopters carrying anti-tank bombs have plagued main battle tanks in Ukraine.
The precision strike has also featured prominently. As the success of the HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) has highlighted, the long-range precision strike will in part dictate the future of combat operations. Especially when used within a robust network-centric architecture, such weapons systems prove highly effective.
With the dominance of drone warfare systems, advanced command-and-control networks, and precision strikes, invisible fighting in the electromagnetic spectrum has also taken on outsize significance. The Russian military’s R-330Zh Zhitel electronic warfare asset, for example, has been jamming GPS-utilizing weapons systems in Ukraine. Likewise, the Leer-3 electronic warfare asset, married to Orlan-10 drones, has been jamming cellular signals regularly.
- Something Borrowed: Non-State Actors in Future Wars
The fight for Ukraine has seen the theater of war dominated by non-state actors who have borrowed—and perhaps permanently seized—capacities traditionally reserved to the state. Among this coterie of non-state actors, Wagner stands out as a private military company with shadow-army DNA. As other Hudson Institute reports have suggested, more Wagner-like entities could emerge in the former Soviet space in an attempt to capitalize on the erosion in the capacities of the Russian state.
Wagner is more akin to a Russian version of Hezbollah than to a stereotypically ragtag group of mercenaries. The network’s wartime financial network, ranging from Africa to former Soviet lands, makes it a force to be reckoned with. Though in the wake of its aborted putsch Wagner may be without much of its arsenal—such as main battle tanks, short-to-medium range air defenses, and combat aircraft—one cannot rule out Yevgeny Prigozhin as a future mover in Russia’s corridors of power.
Another interesting actor to have emerged in the current war is Aerorozvidka of Ukraine. Called a “war startup,” the group has been developing drones and network solutions for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. After the Russian invasion, the high-tech group developed and combat-deployed the R-18 octocopter, which carries RKG-1600 anti-tank bombs, to prey on Russian tanks before they reach the combat zone.
The rise of Wagner and Aerorozvidka illustrates how the future of warfare is not confined to regular armed forces and traditional non-state armed groups. Defense technology companies with kinetic impact teams, as well as private military companies with long tentacles and vast warfighting arsenals, will likely dominate the global battle space in years to come.
- Something Blue: Asymmetric Drone Warfare Impacts the Seas and Skies
The lethal pairing of low-cost aerial and naval robotic assets with dual-use, commercially available systems of arms manufacture is laying the groundwork for a breakthrough in asymmetric warfare. These weapons systems will likely become as ubiquitous and difficult to eliminate as mosquitoes, posing a growing threat to the existing defense-industrial paradigm in different corners of the world.
Ukraine’s unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), for example, operate on commercially available sub-systems, including the Starlink antenna and propulsion system. The initial variants of the baseline utilized the same water jets used by jet skis, enabling them to pursue a maximum speed of 43 knots. With a reported unit cost of only $250,000, these USVs have targeted a long list of Russian warships, including the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate Makarov, a Ropucha-class landing vessel, and a Natya-class minesweeper, as well as the Sevastopol naval base in occupied Crimea.
Iranian-made loitering munitions are having a similar impact for the Russian side. The Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 kamikaze drone baseline is low-cost (as low as $20,000 per unit), accurate, and made of commercially available materials and sub-systems. The airframe of the drone is made of carbon fiber and honeycomb. They are powered by civilian engines, the British AR-731 and the German Limbach L-550, that Iran has manufactured via intellectual property theft. Both systems use commercial-grade avionics components and navigation systems.
The asymmetric warfare prowess of simple but effective aerial and naval kamikaze drones, married to their commercial availability in design and manufacturing, will lead to alterations in defense industrial policies around the globe. By no means will these assets render obsolete legacy naval or aerial weapons systems that have been around for years. But the advance of commercially available robotic warfare assets is already leveling the playing field for nations with restricted access to international weapons markets and arms suppliers. This will make it even more difficult to use sanctions to curtail nefarious actors’ access to deadly weapons.
- Battlefield Update
High-intensity armed conflict continues on the battlefield, accompanied paradoxically by static battlefield geometry: fierce fighting rages, but armies remain largely in place. In the southern assault zone, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are registering limited progress along the Orikhiv and Velyka Novosilka axes. Robotyne and Urozhaine are the focus of Ukraine’s offensive action along these respective axes. According to British intelligence, the Russians have deployed Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen units, the Vostok Akhmat Battalion, to hold the line in Robotyne.
At the time of writing, geolocation efforts detected Ukrainian T-72 derivative main battle tanks to the east of Robotyne. While some assessments consider this evidence of a bypassing move, the Ukrainian military is more likely trying to outflank the Russian defenses in the town.
Open-source intelligence suggests that the Ukrainian 82nd Airborne Brigade, a newly established mechanized formation, has been combat-deployed in the south and has joined the counteroffensive. This unit is known for operating the British-transferred Challenger-2 main battle tank, perhaps presaging its appearance in action. The Russians recently used a kamikaze drone to strike an American-transferred Stryker armored fighting vehicle of the 82nd Airborne Brigade.
While the 82nd Airborne Brigade is a tough unit, its deployment to the hot zone could also signal Ukraine’s dearth of adequate reserve combat formations. With the Ukrainian 9th Corps, once destined to be a breakthrough force, recuperating in the rear, the 10th Corps is now bearing the burden of fighting the Russian military’s first lines of defense.
Ukrainian advances in Kozachi Laheri, along the occupied bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast, mark an interesting development worth watching. The Ukrainian military is keen to hold the tactically important bridgehead it has established there.
Finally, Russia’s offensive action around Kharkiv has intensified but has failed to result in major territorial changes. The Russian military leadership likely considers these combat operations in the north an effort to distract Ukraine from its main effort in the south.